May 22, 2024

Women Leaders

Bullish: Profile of USF President Judy Genshaft

USF President Judy Genshaft will retire next year after moving the school to ‘pre-eminent' status.

Amy Martinez | 10/26/2018

By 1992, after achieving tenure and department-chair status at Ohio State, Genshaft applied for an opening as an associate provost but lost the job to someone with more experience. She took it as a lesson, she says, that “in order to move up, I had to move out.” She left Ohio State to become education dean at the State University of New York in Albany and was promoted to provost three years later.

In fall 1999, she applied to succeed Betty Castor as USF’s seventh president. Jacksonville businessman Tom Petway, then chair of the Florida Board of Regents, said Genshaft stood out for her ability to build partnerships with businesses and raise money, as well as for her experience with regional campuses while at Ohio State.

In September 2001, Genshaft was still settling into her new job when, 15 days after the 9/11 attacks, Sami Al-Arian, a computer-engineering professor at USF, appeared on the Bill O’Reilly show on the Fox TV network. Characterizing USF as a hotbed of militant Arabs, O’Reilly grilled Al-Arian, a native of Kuwait, about his public remarks — “Death to Israel,” “Ji-had is our path” — and whether he had helped raise money for terrorist groups.

Genshaft, still too new at the job to have built a network of allies, found herself in a superheated political environment, facing a tough dilemma: While many alumni and others wanted Al-Arian gone, faculty members regarded the matter as an issue of academic freedom.

USF math professor Greg McColm, secretary of the local chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, points to another complicating factor: The state universities had just moved to a system in which each university was overseen by a local board of trustees. (A later constitutional amendment created a statewide board of governors for the universities.) When the Al-Arian furor erupted, USF was under the uncertain authority of those newly appointed trustees, McColm says.

In February 2003, federal officials arrested Al-Arian on 50 counts of racketeering, perjury and immigration fraud. Genshaft fired Al-Arian, who ultimately pleaded guilty to supporting a terrorist organization and was deported.

McColm sums up Genshaft’s handling of the Al-Arian affair by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

“This was far beyond anything that most presidents encounter,” McColm says. “There was pressure not only from donors, but also from Washington. She managed to navigate the situation successfully in the sense that he (Al-Arian) was the only person fired. The university was not grievously wounded.”

Looking back on her response to the controversy, Genshaft says “I think we handled it as best we could. As a leader, you have to believe you’re making the right decision because you can’t live with yourself otherwise. That’s kind of what gets you through it.”

Control issue

Genshaft describes her management style as collaborative. She says she surrounds herself with smart people and relies on their expertise. “I do not micromanage,” she says. “However, if they get into some issues — zoom — I’ll be there.”

One ongoing issue for Genshaft has been how much control the main USF campus in Tampa should exercise over satellite campuses in St. Petersburg and Manatee County, which have operated quasi-independently, with their own chancellors and accreditations.

Even as many in St. Petersburg have pushed for more independence, Genshaft has kept the satellite campus on a short leash. Five USF St. Petersburg chancellors have either left or been replaced since 2002.

Last year, Genshaft moved to oust Sophia Wisniewska as chancellor over concerns about her management of the campus during Hurricane Irma. In a draft termination letter, Genshaft excoriated Wisniewska for leaving St. Petersburg for Atlanta while students remained in dorms. Just before the storm, Wisniewska had implied in an email to Genshaft that she was still in St. Petersburg. “As I walked around the USFSP campus, I heard more birds chirping than students talking,” she wrote. Wisniewska, who had been well liked on campus, chose to resign.

Earlier this year, the Legislature moved to merge USF’s branch campuses in Sarasota- Manatee and St. Petersburg with USF Tampa under a single accreditation umbrella. The consolidation is to occur by mid-2020. Some on the St. Petersburg campus think Genshaft and others in Tampa had a hand in the move, but Genshaft says she was told about the proposal only after lawmakers had created it.

Genshaft says it’s the right thing to do for students, who will benefit from shared resources. “The walls come down. We’ll offer all kinds of programs across the campuses,” she says.

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